BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) – A local nonprofit is working to show the world that our region holds climbing opportunities that you can’t find anywhere else, and now local climbers are opening a gym to help more people experience them.

The Central Appalachia Climber’s Coalition (CACC) was founded in 2014 with a focus on providing access to rare natural resources. From massive boulders to towering cliff faces, climbers see an opportunity where others may see an obstacle.

Natural beauty accompanies the physical challenge of climbing. (Photo/Brad Mathisen)

“I think there’s also been a traditional sort of skepticism towards rock climbers, like we’re risk takers, thrill seekers,” said Brad Mathisen, vice president of CACC. “And so there’s a lot of initial concerns about what the activity of rock climbing is, so we can provide education and just a different perspective to kind of show that rock climbing isn’t an activity all that more dangerous than most other outdoor recreations like kayaking or mountain biking or horseback riding.”

At its core, rock climbing offers a physical and mental challenge that climbers love. When done safely, some research suggests that the hobby is safer than several other sports. To combat the stigma their sport sometimes receives, CACC meets regularly with local officials to make their case.

“It can help land owners and land managers understand, sort of, what they’re getting into when they allow climbing onto their property,” Mathisen said. “Our region has a plethora of rock climbing resources, and we started the CACC because we saw the value in the resources in the region.”

Right now the climbing scene is limited to those who were already interested before coming to the region or those who could learn from others they met here, but soon CACC hopes that will change. The organization helps maintain climbing areas in six different parks.

“I would say that we have more resources than we do people,” CACC president Kyle King said. “And since we’ve started, we’ve certainly increased the number of users that are coming up. People coming up from Asheville is probably our number one draw… But yeah I would say that we’re in an effort to increase the population of climbers in the region. There’s this resource without the community, and that’s sort of what we’re trying to bridge the gap of.”

CACC president Kyle King hangs, phone in hand, with other CACC climbers on a rock face. (Photo/Brad Mathisen)

Economic development and tourism are a major part of CACC’s mission, they’re seeing an impact at each site. Climbing numbers are tracked by the number of waivers signed by each visitor, and Breaks Interstate Park saw a massive uptick in waivers after a new CACC publication.

“We put out a full-color 150-page rock climbing guidebook to that region,” Mathison said. “And before the guidebook came out and the work that CACC did at the breaks before that, we would see maybe like eight to ten new climbers a month coming to the breaks. Now the number is much more like 50 to 70, depending on the season, per month.”

To expand those numbers even further, Mathisen said organization members are working to open a gym for aspiring climbers to hone their skills.

“You either need to know somebody that can teach you and take you out or you need to pay for a guide, and both of those are kind of tricky to find around here,” Mathison said. “So a climbing gym is really the best place to start. You can kind of go in, find a community, try it out indoors in a really safe environment to see if you’re going to like it.”

The gym, when completed, would operate independently from the nonprofit, Mathison said. While most climbing locations are situated outside of the Tri-Cities, the gym is planned to open on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee.

“It’ll be a bouldering-only gym, which means that there’s no ropes,” Mathisen said. “You climb up to about 15 feet and the whole floor is made of pads, so you just climb and drop.”

Getting experience in a controlled environment is key to ensuring climbers are working safely as well.

Padded mats are placed under bouldering sites, meaning a fall doesn’t spell disaster. (Photo/Brad Mathisen)

“If done properly, climbing is extremely safe,” Mathisen said. “But it is an activity where if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s very easy to get catastrophically injured.”

King hopes that the gym and coalition provide a draw for those looking into moving to the region as well.

“I was coming from Texas, which has no rock climbing and only gyms,” said Alex Holcomb, the coalition’s treasurer and a regional transplant. “So that was how I sort of learned to climb and that was how I came out. And so coming here was a kind of a shock to be the other way around.”

Holcomb said the organization was a great way to get back into his favorite sport and gain access to the region’s vast pool of climbing options.